If 17-year-old James Martin “Marty” Erbaugh ’70 had gotten his way, he may never had enrolled at Denison. Erbaugh and his friends had started a band in high school—The Null Settee, with Erbaugh as lead singer. They were on the trajectory for rock ’n’ roll success, even opening for Roy Orbison in Cincinnati. But when they considered forgoing college to go on tour, their parents put a stop to it.
Instead, the Dayton native came to Denison, where his life was forever changed—and where he forged relationships that he prized until his death on May 12, 2019. Most importantly, Lynnie Myers ’70. The two met in their sophomore year, when Lynnie’s roommate urged her to invite Erbaugh to a Tri Delta Christmas dance. “She pushed me to the phone and said, ‘You’ve got to try; this guy is so fun,’” she recalls. While Erbaugh couldn’t make the Tri Delt dance, he invited Lynnie to a dance the following weekend at his fraternity, Delta Upsilon. “I went, had a fabulous time, and we hit it off right away on what was basically a blind date,” says Lynnie. The two married in 1971.
A religion major at Denison, Erbaugh applied to Yale Divinity School and was accepted—only to determine law school a better fit at the last minute. He earned his J.D. from Case Western Reserve University School of Law and settled in Northeastern Ohio, where he achieved great success as an entrepreneur. Firms he founded between 1978-1995 included JM Erbaugh Co., a private investment company first focused on the horticulture service industry; Erbaugh Corp.; and Lawnmark, a lawncare company serving more than 100,000 customers in six states. Prior to that, he was general manager of the lawncare division of Davey Tree Expert Company, founded by his wife’s great grandfather in 1880.
Erbaugh stayed close to Denison and served on Denison’s board of trustees from 2002-2016 and chaired the Buildings & Grounds committee. “Marty’s work chairing the Buildings & Grounds committee was transformational,” says President Adam Weinberg. “There is not a building that has been constructed on our campus in the 21st century that did not have Marty’s involvement.”
Fellow Trustee Bill Mulligan ’76 concurs. “His imprint is all over campus, from the new quad, to the Burton Morgan Center, the new dorms and science facilities—and then topping it off with the Eisner Center that he was deeply involved with early on.” Sadly, Erbaugh died before the building’s formal dedication.
Erbaugh was particularly influential in the funding and construction of the Burton D. Morgan Center. Erbaugh had been friends with the late Burton Morgan and served as trustee of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation from 1990-2019, helping to continue to champion Morgan’s entrepreneurial vision. Denison wasn’t the only beneficiary of Erbaugh’s incredible generosity. Merging his life-long love for music and leadership experience, he served a six-year term on the board of Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. During a trip to the Out Islands of the Bahamas with his wife and her family, he fell in love with the place and people, and built a home on the island of Eleuthera. He became a fierce supporter of the One Eleuthera Foundation and the Island School, which provides community, sustainability, and education in an outdoor classroom.
“My nearly lifelong friendship with Marty was built on a foundation of trust,” says fellow Denison Life Trustee Scott Trumbull ’70. “With Marty I could trust there would always be a consistency between his thoughts, his words, and his deeds; and to me, this is the definition of a truly ethical man. I feel blessed that such a man was my friend,”
As the Class of 1970 prepares to celebrate their milestone 50th reunion this coming June, Erbaugh, who loved his Denison reunions and basked in the catch-up sessions with his friends and classmates, will be missed. “I want to go to the reunion for me,” says Lynnie. “But I want to go for him even more. He would have loved it.”
In addition to his beloved wife, Erbaugh is survived by daughters Carolyn, Darby, and Lindsay ’04; a brother, Mark Erbaugh; and grandchildren Avery and Jack Harris.